EIF 2015 review: Sarah Connolly & Malcolm Martineau

First published in The Herald on 18 August, 2015

“Thank you all for being here,” said mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly before her encore — a breezy Dominic Muldowney setting of In Paris with You, worth it alone for that inspired James Fenton line: ‘sod off to sodding Notre Dame’. “I know,” Connolly added, “that it was an early start for all of us…” Plenty of singers balk at the 9am warm-up call for Queen’s Hall morning recitals. Big voices can take hours to limber up; whole day-long routines are often shifted to the wee hours accordingly. Yet Connolly gives the impression she wouldn’t make a fuss of anything much. Few singers can match her solid authority, collected grace and unfussy insight.

Her recital was with Malcolm Martineau, a pianist whom she’s known and worked with for decades. Together their soft-hewn, intricate, supremely conversational detail was captivating. Their programme explored French and German post-Wagnerian song — repertoire that suits Connolly’s voice beautifully. Her glowing low register and expansive bloom in top notes brought out gorgeous colours. She even looked the part in a long shift dress printed with art nouveau flowers. Lovely touch.

Connolly is a terrific storyteller, vivid but never overblown, and Martineau a flawless scene setter. Two of Schoenberg’s early Lieder Opus 2 and Strauss’s Die Nacht and Sehnsucht were rapturous, tender and delicate. Zemlinsky’s Six Songs Opus 13 were laced with self-doubt; even three super-sweet Korngold numbers (Sterbelied, Gefasster Abschied and Unverganglichkeit) had a melancholy dignity to them. Hanns Eisler’s Five Elegies — sharp little jabs at the American dream — carried the nostalgia felt by European composers exiled in Hollywood. Best of all were the French songs: Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis and Poulenc’s astutely observed Banalités, which sounded anything but.